Freedom Machines and the Ethics of Transportation
“The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”
It’s 5:45 am and still dark, the air is chilly but not cold. I straddle my bike and check the sky for rain clouds, the crescent moon is just setting. The morning air brushes against my face as I pedal silently down the darkened street and am chilled only briefly, much in the same way a swimmer is chilled for just the first lap. I pedal and coast through Buffalo’s East Side, which is one of our city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, and I think of an interview I recently read of Reverend Laura Everett, a Boston area pastor, cyclist, and author of the book, Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels, "Bicycles are remarkable because you can go almost anywhere with them—on dirt roads, on gravel, on concrete, over grass. But to ride through the city means that you ride in places that are not glorious but sad and tragic, and have been for a long time. That’s the spiritual life, too" (Faithandleadership.com, 2017).
On my 5 ½ mile commute to work I have a unique vantage point. The streets are still dark, some of the house lights are just coming on, and on some mornings I see wildlife, even in the city: raccoon, skunk, rabbits, and even deer that live near the railroad tracks. I arrive at work on time and invigorated, albeit a bit sweaty.
This is the second of three papers for an Intro to Ethics class regarding ethics in everyday life. The first paper focused on ethical food choices, mainly: Is it ethical to eat meat in modern society? This paper will focus on transportation choices.
While I’ll touch on the detrimental effects of cars on ourselves and our planet, this paper is really about bicycles, which some consider to be the most efficient transportation machine ever built; the rider is both the engine and the cargo (Exploratorium, 2017). I’d also like to add at the onset, that this paper is not about pointing fingers at cars, though I will state some facts, but more so this is about showing how one person can live without a car—by choice—in a car centric society. This said, I should also disclose that I am not a twenty-something, or even forty-something, I am a middle-aged guy in my mid-fifties with creaky knees and reoccurring back problems, but living without a car is still possible.
This being said, I also realize that living car-free is not possible for everyone, indeed for many it may be impossible. I choose to live in the inner city where it is relatively easy to get around—mostly I use a bicycle, public transportation, or walk—often a bicycle is quicker than a car for short trips. Walk-Score rates my neighborhood at 93 points, which they consider a “walker’s paradise” (Walk Score, 2017). I am fully aware that if one resides in the suburbs or a rural area it would be next to impossible to survive without a car.
The earliest version of what we now know as a bicycle was invented in Germany around 1817, by Baron Karl von Drais (Burgwardt, 2001). The contraption had no pedals or chain drive, the rider would simply straddle the machine and push and coast their way along. These early contraptions began to be replicated elsewhere and became known as hobby-horses or dandy-horses (Burgwardt, 2001). There were other versions and types of bicycles that followed but the next big change came in the 1870’s with the invention of the “ordinary” bicycle, this is the one that you see in old photos or period movies, it’s the bicycle with the really large wheel in front and the small one in back. This is also the first bicycle to become readily available to the public. The reason this is so significant is that for the first time people had another option besides a horse or their own two feet for personal transportation. Carl F. Burwardt states in his book, Buffalo’s Bicycles, Reflections on Buffalo’s Colossal and Overlooked Bicycle Heritage,
“Mastering it [the bicycle] gave us our first taste of independence and mobility. It gave us the opportunity to travel beyond the limited world of one’s own backyard and neighborhood to find a bigger world where we discovered and acquired a new responsibility for ourselves. Before 1890 most people had been limited to the traditional personal transportation provided by a horse or other animal power. The result was that by 1875 a completely different design of bicycle had been perfected and was now in common use by thousands of people who soon preferred the bicycle to the horse for their personal transport” (Burgwardt, 2001).
It’s interesting to note that the first gas powered autos were being developed during this same period. While they had predecessors, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, both of Germany, are most often credited as being the most important pioneers in the early development of the gas powered automobile (Alvord, 2000). Benze ran his car for the first time in 1885 and Daimler ran his in 1886 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017) , though it was Benz who attempted to show that the car could be used for everyday personal travel. Katie Alvord writes in her book, Divorce Your Car, Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile, “1888 Berta Benz (wife of Karl) and sons make the first motorcar trip (62 miles) pushing the car up hills and stopping for several repairs—among them, Berta clears the fuel line with her hairpin and fixes an electrical short using her garters as insulating tape” (Alvord, 2000).
Then came the most significant development in the early history of the bicycle, the “ordinary bicycle” was replaced by the safety bicycle. This ordinary resembled those we ride today, two medium sized wheels and chain driven. It was also safer to ride than the tall ordinary, thus the name safety.
By the 1890s, the bicycle was the most sought after form of personal transport, and it’s interesting to note that better road condition, such as paving, and in fact the very rules of the road came about not because of the automobile but the bicycle, “The active, popular, and common use of the bicycle by the 1890s created a need for riding rules of the roads now crowded with bicyclists. These regulations became our present driving rules of the road. More and more cyclists were now traveling farther from home and needed traveling directions. This created the need for erecting road signs and printing road maps for the cyclists” (Burgwardt, 2001).
The roads themselves were in such bad shape, if existent at all, and were often nothing but muddy, ruddy paths. In response to this a movement began with a push to improve the roads, which was spearheaded by the newly formed bicycle advocacy group, The League of American Wheelmen, known currently as The League of American Bicyclists. This movement became known as the Good Roads Movement, and the person mostly credited with it’s foresight, and who became known as the “Father of Good Roads,” is Horatio Earle (En.wikipedia.org, 2017). As quoted from his 1929 autobiography, The Autobiography of “By Gum” Earle, "I often hear now-a-days, the automobile instigated good roads; that the automobile is the parent of good roads. Well, the truth is, the bicycle is the father of the good roads movement in this country. The League fought for equal privileges with horse-drawn vehicles. All these battles were won and the bicyclist was accorded equal rights with other users of highways and streets" (Google Books, 2017). It’s interesting to note, that because of this movement, to this day in NY State (and most states) the bicycle has the same road rights as a car (NY DOT, 2017).
This background information is simply to illustrate that the development of the bicycle and car occurred nearly simultaneously, and how both vehicles had a great impact on our society. But one of them had and continues to have detrimental effects, not just on or planet, but also our cities, and even us as individuals.
As I commute to work each morning I cross a bridge that crosses the Kensington Expressway, also known locally as “the 33,” named after its route number. This is a classic example of a highway that runs from the inner city to the first or second ring suburbs. Its sole reason for being built was to transport people quickly from the city to the suburbs, and it does this quite efficiently. The problem is that it literally cut the city into two, destroying neighborhoods along the way. This is not unique to Buffalo, of course. Katie Alvord writes, “In the 1960s, only 40 percent of U.S. city dwellers owned cars. Interstates took homes from these residents, ruining neighborhood businesses on which they relied and favoring chain stores, which could afford the high price of locating near freeway exits” (Alvord, 2000).
It’s also worthy to note that many of these highways that slash through cities often do so in African American neighborhoods, “U.S. interstate construction leveled so many African-American homes for highways that interstates were called white roads through black bedrooms” (Alvord, 2000). This migration of white families to the suburbs became known as the “white flight.”
I first learned to ride a bike when I was quite young, maybe 7 or 8 years old, and I did so in the housing project where I spent my youth, which resides directly next to the Kensington Expressway. At that time—in the 1960s—the expressway was being built. Friends and I would ride down the unopened highway for fun. A few years later, when my family purchased our first car, we too became part of the white flight and moved to the suburbs, the American dream.
The proliferation of the car also shaped outlying towns and villages and re-shaped cities. In the suburbs, for example, more often than not, houses are built with large attached garages, usually a front feature of the house, with plenty of driveway space for vehicles. Shopping malls and suburban plazas are fronted or surrounded by acres of parking space. In cities, besides the aforementioned urban to suburban highways, there had to be plenty of parking. This sometimes takes shape as older buildings are leveled to accommodate the inundating automobile.
On my way home from work recently, and thinking about this paper, I stopped my bike on the bridge that crosses the 33. It was rush hour and as I peered down at the slow moving vehicles I counted, took a casual toll at what I saw. What I was counting was how many vehicles had more than one person in them. I counted for just a few minutes, but on average there was more than one person in every 12th vehicle, the others had only the driver. American cars, while more efficient than they used to be, are actually heavier than they used to be also (Lowrey, 2017). Today the average American vehicle tops 4000 pounds. Two tons of metal, plastic, and rubber to carry a single rider to and from work. Despite the movement of families to downsize to one car or to go car free, the amount of cars that Americans own still continues to rise. Last year there were 261 million cars registered in America, it is projected that this year the number will jump to nearly 270 million (H and Company, 2017) .
Given the sheer number of cars on the road there are bound to be accidents, lots of them. Cars crash into things, hit each other, hit bicyclists, and pedestrians. The first casualty recorded, as being hit by a car, was in 1896; Bridget Driscoll was a pedestrian in London when she was hit and killed.
People sometimes comment or question me if I am not afraid to ride a bike in the city, and that they could never do it. Yes, I tell them, it can be harrowing at times, but it is still far more dangerous to be in a car. According to the US Department of Transportation more than 37,000 people died from automobile related accidents in 2016, this is a 5.6 percent increase from the previous year (US DOT, 2017) some sources claim the number to be more than 40,000 fatalities (Nsc.org, 2017). Inversely, the website of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center tells us that 818 people were killed while riding a bicycle in 2015, the figure was expected to rise the following year (Pedbikeinfo.org, 2017). Simple math will yield that there are 40-50 times more automobile fatalities each year than there with bicycles.
I’d be remiss in writing this paper if I didn’t comment on the stark contrast to the health befits to riding a bicycle to the detrimental effects autos have on our environment. The many health benefits of riding a bike for transportation are mostly obvious, and the website of the Harvard Medical School lists five of them: It is easy on your joints, provides an aerobic workout, builds muscle, helps with balancing, and builds bone strength (Harvard Publishing, 2017). I’d like to add to this list, burns calories and helps with mental health. Nowhere, of course, is there any information claiming the bicycle bad for our environment or contributing to climate change.
A recent NY Times article, citing it’s contradictory stance to the Trump administration’s position on climate change, states via an exhaustive report that it is unquestionable that cars are a continuing factor to the health of our climate, “Over the past 115 years global average temperatures have increased 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to record-breaking weather events and temperature extremes. The global long term warming trend is unambiguous, and there is no convincing alternative explanation that anything other than humans—the cars we drive, the power plants we operate, the forests we destroy—are to blame.”
I could, of course, carry on for many more pages with this discourse citing examples of the negative affects of cars on us personally and our planet. While this may seem in some ways a long rant against the car it isn’t. I don’t think it is practical that we do not have cars on the road, just that they aren’t used to often or mindlessly. Indeed I am very thankful that our police, ambulance, and fire departments have powerful vehicles. But my argument, which is really the entire gist of this paper, is that I believe people should consider transportation alternatives. Is it possible to use your gas-powered vehicle less? Can you take public transportation sometimes? How about car-pooling/ride-sharing? Personally, the cost of car ownership—which most sources cite at between $8000 and $10,000 per year—is enough for me to reconsider transportation alternatives (NBC4 Washington, 2017). Or, if I wanted to display the confident arrogance that I believe Richard Taylor states throughout his book, Restoring Pride: The Lost Virtue of Our Age (Taylor, 1996), I could say simply and straightforwardly that there is so much evidence on the negative affects of cars on ourselves and our planet there is no reason we should each individually own one and drive one solo each day.
Though because I wrote this and spewed out a few facts does not make me perfectly ethical in regards to my transport. I do belong to a car share program where there is a car available if I need it, which I do use a few times a year. I do ride bicycles year round, yes even in Buffalo’s winters, but thanks to climate change, which is likely at least partly due to human activity, such as driving too many gas-powered vehicles, winters are no longer as severe as they once were.
To get a bit philosophical regarding bicycles, they are to me more than simply getting from point A to point B. When I am on a bike I am not enclosed in the climate controlled capsule of a car but am an active part of my environment, and I’m keenly aware of my surroundings. I am also often aware and appreciative of my body, especially as I get older, that my body is the engine with food as it’s fuel, this is also true of when I walk. I am very grateful that I am able to transport myself, even with my creaky knees and sometimes painful back. In many ways riding a bike for me is a form of meditation and even prayer, especially in the early pre-dawn hours.
In my kitchen at home I have a small framed print by the cartoonist Andy Singer. In it there are two frames, one has a cartoon of a man in a car stuck in a traffic who is screaming into a cell phone, and above it there is the title, “Successful Man.” The frame below shows a man walking, carrying nothing, just simply walking. He has a blissful look on his face; the title for this frame is “Unsuccessful Man.” These, I think are the norms that our society sees.
By riding a bike, or more specifically by not owning and driving a car every day, is in many ways living outside what our society thinks of as normal. When I accepted my current employment, about 6 months ago, my daily commute went from being about 2 miles each way to slightly more than 5 miles each way. People asked if I were going to get a car, some suggested that I do. Instead I got a better bike, and take public transportation when it rains. For me living without a car is normal. I really believe that I am a better person because of it. And If it makes me a better person to myself then it is only natural that I can be a better person to those around me and in society in general. I am also very concerned about the planet we leave for our children and children’s children. These things alone, I think makes it worth it.
This said, I’ll finish with a quote from Reverend Everett as I believe she sums up my sentiments nicely, “My life is better. My world is bigger. My friends are more diverse. My city is better-known to me on a bicycle. Part of what a bicycle gives is a sense of urgency and freedom. I can move of my own accord, and I'm not an especially fit person. I’m not dependent upon a car or the timetable of a bus line. When bicycles were first introduced to commercial markets, some ads called them “freedom machines” (Faithandleadership.com, 2017).
Works and Sites Cited:
Alvord, K. (2000). Divorce your car!. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers.
Burgwardt, C. (2001). Buffalo's bicycles. Orchard Park, N.Y.: Pedaling History Bicycle Museum.
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[Accessed 30 Oct. 2017].
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